Fire, smoke and metal at North Korea steel plant

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

CHOLLIMA, North Korea: A crane moves a gi­ant bucket brim­ming with 40 tons of molten steel to­wards a gang­way in North Korea’s Chollima Steel Com­plex. Flames, smoke and a shower of sparks erupt as a worker thrusts his tem­per­a­ture gauge into the liq­uid, its tip glow­ing white-hot as he with­draws it.

Ratch­eted high up through a cav­ernous mill, which con­tains six sep­a­rate fur­naces, the steel is poured into a press that ex­trudes it into in­gots weigh­ing hun­dreds of kilo­grams each, still glow­ing red as they plunge into a pool of water to cool. In front of it hang two ban­ners. “Let us pro­duce steel bars reg­u­larly at a high level!” reads one. “Sin­gle-minded unity,” pro­claims the other.

The plant, south-west of the cap­i­tal Py­ongyang, has around 8,000 staff and is one of the big­gest in North Korea, op­er­at­ing in a sec­tor vi­tal to the econ­omy of the iso­lated, sanc­tions-hit coun­try.

Pro­duc­tion has av­er­aged 500,000 tons an­nu­ally over the past three years, ac­cord­ing to deputy chief en­gi­neer Kim Gil-Nam. The num­ber is slightly lower than the fig­ures from the 1980s on dis­play in a vis­i­tor gallery — 517,944 tons in 1987, for ex­am­ple. He would not be drawn on its full ca­pac­ity, and whether out­put was ris­ing or fall­ing, but two of the six fur­naces were un­der­go­ing main­te­nance when AFP vis­ited.

Nu­clear-armed North Korea, which car­ried out its first suc­cess­ful launch of an in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­sile (ICBM) this month, is sub­ject to mul­ti­ple rounds of United Na­tions sanc­tions over its atomic and rocket pro­grams, and its creak­ing state sec­tor suf­fers peren­nial short­ages of equip­ment and spare parts.

Leg­endary horse

Py­ongyang does not is­sue any of­fi­cial eco­nomic sta­tis­tics, not even GDP growth, re­gard­ing such num­bers as state se­crets, so no na­tional steel pro­duc­tion fig­ures are avail­able. But Kim - who has “Safe­guard the coun­try” tat­tooed on his left fore­arm, a sou­venir of his grad­u­a­tion from mid­dle school - in­sisted that the plant’s op­er­a­tions had not been hit by the mea­sures. “Our great pres­i­dent Kim Il-Sung built a plant in the 1960s that can pro­duce the raw ma­te­rial un­der any sanc­tions racket,” he said. “So al­though we say we are short of iron on a na­tional level and we are short of this and that, our com­plex has not re­ally been af­fected by the sanc­tions racket by US im­pe­ri­al­ists.” The steel plant was first built in 1939 when Korea was a Ja­panese colony and oc­cu­py­ing au­thor­i­ties con­cen­trated in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment in the north­ern part of the coun­try, re­gard­ing the south as an agri­cul­tural bread­bas­ket. De­stroyed in war, it was later re­built and ex­panded by the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is of­fi­cially known, and re­named Chollima af­ter a myth­i­cal winged horse that can run 1,000 li-an Asian mea­sure of dis­tance with the Korean ver­sion equiv­a­lent to around 400 me­tres-in a day.

A mo­saic out­side de­picts the North’s founder Kim Il-Sung giv­ing or­ders for its re­con­struc­tion in 1953, and the con­crete block on which he is said to have sat is pre­served for pos­ter­ity in a glass box. When a 10,000-tonne press was in­stalled, the ma­chine was awarded the North’s Hero of Labour medal.

Pride of the peo­ple

Un­der United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion 2321, passed in Novem­ber last year, North Korean ex­ports of iron and iron ore are banned, un­less the trans­ac­tions are “deter­mined to be ex­clu­sively for liveli­hood pur­poses” and do not gen­er­ate rev­enue for Py­ongyang’s banned weapons pro­grams. But two-way trade be­tween the North and China, its key ally, busi­ness part­ner and diplo­matic pro­tec­tor, jumped in the first five months of this year, de­spite US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump urg­ing Bei­jing to do more to rein in Py­ongyang.

Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures from Chi­nese Cus­toms, the coun­try im­ported just over 100,000 tons of iron and steel from North Korea in the pe­riod, worth around $30 mil­lion. The South’s cen­tral bank es­ti­mated this week that the North’s econ­omy grew 3.9 per­cent in 2016 - its fastest pace in 17 years, driven by in­creas­ing pri­vate-sec­tor ac­tiv­ity - with pro­duc­tion in heavy and chem­i­cal in­dus­tries up 6.7 per­cent. —AFP

PY­ONGYANG: In this photo taken on July 22, 2017, a worker watches as molten steel is trans­ferred from a fur­nace dur­ing pro­duc­tion at the Chollima Steel Com­plex, south-west of Py­ongyang. —AFP

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